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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

3.75  ·  Rating Details ·  3,807 Ratings  ·  565 Reviews
A survey of the quirks and quandaries of the English language, focusing on our strange and wonderful grammar

Why do we say "I am reading a catalog" instead of "I read a catalog"? Why do we say "do" at all? Is the way we speak a reflection of our cultural values? Delving into these provocative topics and more, Our Magnificent Bastard Language distills hundreds of years of f
Hardcover, 230 pages
Published October 30th 2008 by Gotham (first published October 1st 2008)
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Amy I don't know how much this answers your question but one difference is John McWhorter has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford, while Bill Bryson's…moreI don't know how much this answers your question but one difference is John McWhorter has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford, while Bill Bryson's background is in journalism. No offense to journalists, but I doubt Bryson has researched the topic as thoroughly as McWhorter has. I have heard such negative things about Bryson's book (i.e. he perpetuates fallacies long disproved by linguists) that I haven't even bothered to read it and I read a lot of linguistics books. And in case you are wondering, yes I do have a background/degree in Linguistics so I am passionate about the topic. Happy reading!(less)

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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A fantastic book! I have not come across anyone, not even Steven Pinker, who does such a good job of showing you how exciting linguistics can be. His bold and unconventional history of the English language was full of ideas I'd never seen before, but which made excellent sense. And, before I get into the review proper, a contrite apology to Jordan. She gave it to me six months ago as a birthday present, and somehow I didn't open it until last week. Well, Jordan, thank you, and I'll try to be mor ...more
Feb 16, 2009 Terence rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Language/linguistics fans
This is an extraordinarily delightful little book that highlights some of English's lesser known idiosyncrasies because, as the author notes, English is not just a collection of words, nor is its genius an markedly unusual openness to new vocabulary.

I first encountered John McWhorter with his book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language Paperback, which traced the evolution of languages from a "first language" and which is also highly recommended. (Actually, having read The Singing Nea
Feb 01, 2010 David rated it it was ok
I read McWhorter's "The Power of Babel" a few years ago and thought it was terrific. His subsequent effort, "Doing our own Thing", was a major disappointment - self-indulgent, undisciplined, and essentially pointless. So I would have skipped this one (a cover blurb that squeezes the chestnuts "rollicking tour" and "rousing celebration" into the same sentence is generally not a good sign). Did I really need reassurance from yet another linguist that it's OK to split an infinitive, or to end a sen ...more
Apr 09, 2010 Lavinia rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010, non-fiction, in-en
Never thought Linguistics can be so much fun! Too many details to discuss. But if you ever wondered why, for instance, "you" has the same form for both singular and plural, why we say "aren't I" instead of the more logical "amn't I", why we use the meaningless "do" or "they" as a singular pronoun instead of he/she when the gender is not clear, you might get some answers or at least accept the fact that, in the author's own words, "shitte happens". He uses facts, comparison, logic and fun to expl ...more
Nov 18, 2015 Becky rated it really liked it
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Yup. That is a for real, honest to goodness grammatically correct sentence in the English language. Why it wasn't included in this book is a mystery for the ages, because it's a great bit of wordplay that shows how simple and yet crazy this language can be.

But still, this book was very interesting, if pretty academic and technical. This is the type of book that I would want to read along with the audio, because I learn best visual
Jul 31, 2014 Becky rated it it was amazing
What a fun book! This is one of those rare times where I would suggest having the audio and actually following along in the book. The audio is wonderful because you actually get to hear all the wonderful languages McWhorter is referencing, also well as just here him gush and laugh while narrating. You can tell just how passionate he is about linguistics as well as making linguistics a known subject to the genpop. It was a lot of fun. But if you had the book to follow along in as well then you wo ...more
Feb 12, 2012 Laura rated it did not like it
I am not an expert, but I did major in Linguistics in college. I found McWhorter's arguments horribly oversimplified and tedious to read. I'm glad that he is putting linguistic scholarship out there for the general public, but someone with even a rudimentary knowledge (or even a grammar or history nerd) would know.

Being familiar with some of the counter-arguments he suggests, I can say that he presents them in a manner intended to make them appear somewhat foolish, rather than addressing them pr
Apr 13, 2015 Michael rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction-read
John McWhorter has done it again! For those who love language, there is no author better to educate and entertain on all matters linguistic. In the current work, he proves that Celtic grammatical structures have given English its "meaningless do" (as in "Do you know what I mean?") and its normative progressive present tense (as in "I am writing" rather than the more usual in other Germanic languages "I write"). He, in fact, rather belabors the point in the first chapter to an extent that can onl ...more
Jul 13, 2011 Maria rated it liked it
While written in an entertaining and humorous tone, the author belabors a few points a little too much for my taste. He spends almost 70 pages establishing why he is unique among all linguists because of his belief that English has been influenced by Celtic languages. It really could have been written in half the length but he seems to enjoy his own voice.

There are multiple examples provided to support his theories, & he has made this accessible to non-academics, but his tone of "us" (anyone
Mahala Helf
Jun 22, 2009 Mahala Helf rated it did not like it
Six assertions of unexplained significance are belabored into the first three repetitious soporific chapters(literally--1st & last book in all my years that put me to sleep within a page time after time):

1. Most linguists study individual languages & are ignorant of others.
2. This ignorance causes them to exceptionalize and mistake the reasons for changes in the English language.
3. John McWhorter aloneable to synthesis research and theory about all languages to discern the errors.
3. Chan
Feb 07, 2010 Georg rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: english, non-fiction
A very interesting book with some new theories about the development of the English language from its Germanic roots. I like his comparisons of the members of the “gang” and even more since I am familiar with two of them (ok, one and a half). McWhorter shows without any prejudice that not only all human beings are equal but also all languages though they are very different. It’s an interesting point that a language with an “easy” grammar might be a bigger challenge for the speaker and that the E ...more
Mary Soderstrom
Jun 08, 2013 Mary Soderstrom rated it really liked it

For my next non-fiction project, I'm been rummaging around in paleolinguistics and paleohistory: I'll tell you just why in a future post. Suffice to say that my most recent reading has led me back to the delightful Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter.

His unstated thesis is that English is a Creole language, with nothing pejorative intended in the phrase. What happened to English is that it was transformed when a prolonged wave of newcomers struggled to
Oct 22, 2012 Kevin rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
When someone says to me in the course of conversation, "Here's an idea I had" I think to myself, "okay, let's see."

When someone runs up to me and grabs me by the bicep and says, "I'm telling you, man! This is how it went down!" I'm inclined to back away.

Listen, I don't know Fact One about the linguistic anthropology community. This is the first of John McWhorter's books that I've ever read. I don't know if he's King of the Hill or some weirdo that hangs out in the gutters. What I can tell you, t
Sandy D.
Recommended by a blogger at the Ann Arbor library, and rightly so - McWhorter is a funny writer and a historical linguist. I'm a little shocked at how well he writes, given the fact that he studies linguistics, in fact. Anthropologists in general do not write well for the general reader (with the exception of Robert Sapolsky, whom I adore, and Kent Flannery, who has written a few truly funny paragraphs that are stuck in the middle of boring-to-anyone-outside-the-field archaeological monographs). ...more
Troy Blackford
May 08, 2014 Troy Blackford rated it really liked it
This was very interesting. I did expect a book about all the words that we have taken into English from other languages, but I'm glad that I got so much more than that. McWhorter instead focuses on how our grammar has absorbed elements from other languages, specifically Welsh, and makes a case for a linguistic argument that I sense is aimed more at other linguists, whom he hopes to convince, rather than at laypeople. Though it definitely convinced me, I should add.

Following that, he delves into
Dec 18, 2015 Amanda rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Really enjoyed this exploration of English's origins outside of the usual "Latin + German" story. Especially as a student of Irish Gaelic, I loved reading more about the Celtic and Welsh influences on modern English.
Dichotomy Girl
Apr 30, 2015 Dichotomy Girl rated it liked it
I found the first half really enjoyable, the second half not as much.
Sep 06, 2014 Nathaniel rated it really liked it
I am rapidly becoming a really big fan of Dr. McWhorter, and I've got to say that anyone who isn't listening to him read his own books is totally missing out. One of the things that's so fun is to hear him read all the foreign language snippets or stress the English language with his gift for accents and humor. Really: you *have* to get the audiobook version of this. (His Great Courses class, "Language A to Z" is also fantastic.)

I do think that the summaries of this book are a little misleading.
Cindy Leighton
How can a book about the development of English grammar and language be soooo fascinating?!?! . Loved the "meaningless do" - English is so weird with this "Do you want to" "I do not like" I loved his critique of people who "correct" others' English. "All languages leak." There are no languages that "always follow the rules" so trying to create an English that is "rational" or unchanging is ridiculous. Appreciate his scholarly defense of the single genderless "they" which he shows has been used f ...more
Ryan Long
Jun 30, 2012 Ryan Long rated it liked it
This was a decent piece of revisionist linguistic history. The arguments are well-reasoned, and the prose is nice. People with an affinity for language will like this book. More specifically, native English speakers who know at least a couple of foreign languages will have a good time reading this book.

A few criticisms:

First, the book is written at least at a high school reading level, perhaps even a junior high reading level. I realize that making the language a bit more intellectual would put
Angela Forfia
Feb 22, 2009 Angela Forfia rated it it was amazing
The vast majority of linguistics books for the mass market are books about the history of words. If you pick up a typical history of the English language, you will learn about words we got from the Vikings, words we got from the French, words we got from the colonial era...with very little information about the structure of the English language itself. While these books are full of fun factoids--did you know shampoo comes from Hindi?--they never get to the heart of what makes language fascinatin ...more
Apr 02, 2011 Becky rated it it was ok
While I find the subject of this book very interesting, the author's tone and style are extraordinarily grating. He can't make a point but once, and has to hammer it home over and over again, in the most condescending language possible. He whines and bitches his way through his explanations: "The Welsh! The Cornish! Arrg! My colleagues are idiots!!" "Viking pillaging of the English tongue! just LOOK at the geography, you morons!" Then he takes a really random break in his study of English to den ...more
Kevin Cole
May 15, 2014 Kevin Cole rated it it was amazing
John McWhorter is the rarest sort of teacher: He takes something you think is complicated and makes it blessedly simple.
Why is English the way it is? McWhorter explains. Is English really as simple as people say it is? Yes and no. McWhorter explains. Isn't the difference between Beowulf and Shakespeare just a bunch of French words? Not even close. McWhorter explains.
More than any other "populist" linguist, McWhorter explains features of English that native speakers never think about, but what I
Mar 11, 2015 Kerry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So, I liked this a lot. It was fun. And I'm glad the author read his own book; you could totally tell that he was reading his own words. (And I trusted him to say things in other languages.) You know how a lot of non-fiction books should have stayed just magazine articles? This was not one of them.

It lost a star because of what my buddy Kevin says; his attitude about his theories (and how they are DEFINITELY RIGHT) got the Spock Eyebrow from me every once in a while. But it didn't bother me so m
Dec 12, 2013 Bill rated it really liked it
I am fascinated by the English language, how it came to be and how it evolved into the language we use and abuse today. This book gives insight into what forces influenced our language and how we ended up with such a unique language. Celtic influences that were absorbed into the language of invading Germanic tribes? Vikings beating simplicity into the existing English language when they arrived in England? Mr. McWhorter had me at invading Germanic Tribes! I enjoyed this book thoroughly, and if y ...more
Charlie Lovett
Apr 25, 2015 Charlie Lovett rated it really liked it
Gobbled this confection up in a single sitting. McWhorter tells a much more interesting story of the evolution of the English language than has heretofore been put down so concisely. His big picture approach makes real sense to me, and though some of his claims fly in the face of some conventional wisdom, they seem to have much more logic behind them than said "wisdom." Also, I just love books about English written for laymen (like Bryson's). Best of all—there are still mysteries to solve!
Bryan Hobbs
May 05, 2015 Bryan Hobbs rated it it was amazing
I don't think there are any spoilers to worry about here. This is a book that language douches, such as myself, would enjoy and everyone else would believe to be very dry and incomprehensible.

If you enjoyed Bill Bryson's books on English, you should find this book enjoyable as well.
Mar 26, 2013 Lynne rated it liked it
Shelves: history, audiobooks
I loved that the rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition was described as a "nineteenth century fetish".
Oct 01, 2014 Daniel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, language
really enjoyable and thought provoking book on the history of English. I agree with most of the findings and theories presented here.
Nicholas Whyte
Mar 19, 2011 Nicholas Whyte rated it really liked it
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is a short book (less than 200 pages), looking at grammar. McWhorter makes five main points, one of which was completely new and intriguing to me.

1) That the '-ing' present progressive and 'do' constructions in English come from Celtic languages. I had twigged to the former while dabbling in Irish last year; but it seems that both Welsh and Cornish also use the verb 'do' in the equivalent of questions and negatives - Do you agree? I don't agree. McWhorter argues th
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Dr. John McWhorter is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He earned his B.A. from Rutgers University, his M.A. from New York University, and his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University. Before taking his position at the Manhattan Institute, he held teaching positions at Cornell University, where he held the position of Assistant Professor, and at the University of California, Berkele ...more
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“Oh, those lapses, darling. So many of us walk around letting fly with “errors.” We could do better, but we’re so slovenly, so rushed amid the hurly-burly of modern life, so imprinted by the “let it all hang out” ethos of the sixties, that we don’t bother to observe the “rules” of “correct” grammar.

To a linguist, if I may share, these “rules” occupy the exact same place as the notion of astrology, alchemy, and medicine being based on the four humors. The “rules” make no logical sense in terms of the history of our language, or what languages around the world are like.

Nota bene: linguists savor articulateness in speech and fine composition in writing as much as anyone else. Our position is not—I repeat, not—that we should chuck standards of graceful composition. All of us are agreed that there is usefulness in a standard variety of a language, whose artful and effective usage requires tutelage. No argument there.

The argument is about what constitutes artful and effective usage. Quite a few notions that get around out there have nothing to do with grace or clarity, and are just based on misconceptions about how languages work.

Yet, in my experience, to try to get these things across to laymen often results in the person’s verging on anger. There is a sense that these “rules” just must be right, and that linguists’ purported expertise on language must be somehow flawed on this score. We are, it is said, permissive—perhaps along the lines of the notorious leftist tilt among academics, or maybe as an outgrowth of the roots of linguistics in anthropology, which teaches that all cultures are equal. In any case, we are wrong. Maybe we have a point here and there, but only that.”
“In an ideal world, the time English speakers devote to steeling themselves against, and complaining about, things like Billy and me, singular they, and impact as a verb would be better spent attending to genuine matters of graceful oral and written expression.” 2 likes
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